Just in case you weren’t quite totally fed up with Congress yet

The Washington Post has done an analysis of congressional earmarks, and found the following:

Thirty-three members of Congress have steered more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending provisions to dozens of public projects that are next to or near the lawmakers’ own property, according to a Washington Post investigation. Under the ethics rules Congress has written for itself, this is both legal and undisclosed.

In the first review of its kind, The Post analyzed public records on the holdings of all 535 members and compared them with earmarks members had sought for pet projects, most of them since 2008. The process uncovered appropriations for work in close proximity to commercial and residential real estate owned by the lawmakers or their family members. The review also found 16 lawmakers who sent tax dollars to companies, colleges or community programs where their spouses, children or parents work as salaried employees or serve on boards.

None of the 33 were from South Carolina, although when you first look at the map, it appears that there is a mug shot looming over our state. But it’s just some guy named Jack Kingston from Georgia.

Not that the Post claims to have caught all the potential conflicts. It invites readers to help:

What do you know?

Help us disclose the undisclosed.

Do you have any specific information about earmarks in which current members of Congress may have had a personal financial interest? Or do you have any tips on undisclosed financial conflicts that could help us create a more complete financial portrait of Congress?

Please submit your info in the box below; all replies will be handled with confidentiality.

Now that I’ve reported this, what do I think about it? I think… I’m still ambivalent about earmarks. I can occasionally get stirred up about them. Unlike members of Congress, I’d prefer that with rare exceptions, projects be prioritized by disinterested bureaucrats, based on criteria that are as objective as possible. But it also seems within the legitimate constitutional purview of Congress to direct spending as specifically as it likes, and sometimes a specific local project actually does have national importance. Charleston harbor, for instance. The Hoover Dam.

As for the cases reported here… well, they get into that fuzzy area that I’ve always had a problem with. The area where “ethics” is defined in terms of appearances, rather than right or wrong.

It occurs to me that, since members of Congress are certainly most likely to advocate projects in their own districts — something that is not inherently wrong, even though it has enormous potential for skewing national priorities — that a certain percentage of such projects will be “near” their own property. What percentage? Well…

If 33 have been caught doing so (and as I said, there are likely to be more), that means just over 6 percent of the 535 members of Congress may have considered self-interest in seeking these earmarks. I say “may” because this is very fuzzy territory. I expect that some element of venality entered the decision-making processes of some of these members. But all, or even most, of the accused 6 percent? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

Take that Jack Kingston guy. He sought beach renourishment money, and he owns a beach house about 900 feet from the beach. Set aside whether you think federal money should be spent pumping sand onto beaches. Is it unusual for members of Congress to help local officials get financing for such projects, whether they own beach property or not? No, it isn’t.

And that brings us to the problem of earmarks overall. Most of the time, it’s a highly flawed way to set spending priorities. But do I think this story is a major “gotcha” on Congress? No. But it will play that way. What’s Congress approval rating down to now? 13 percent? It may go a fractional bit lower, as a result of this story.

Not that it should. 84 percent disapproval seems like enough calumny heaped about these elected heads.

17 thoughts on “Just in case you weren’t quite totally fed up with Congress yet

  1. Bart

    A good friend just posted something on his Facebook page that I totally agree with. We sometimes forget the wisdom of the founders of this country and their insight that is still relevant today, in spite of the recent revelation of Ruth Ginsberg’s opinion of the Constitution.

    “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” John Adams

    I can add nothing to his words.

  2. Brad

    Bart, you just quoted my favorite Founder, clearly exhibiting one of the things I like about him best.

    Adams found himself caught up in the first great political polarization, between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, much to his sorrow. He was elected a Federalist, but it was really Hamilton’s party, and I attribute the party’s excesses — mirrored by the excesses of the Democratic-Republicans — mostly to him. On the other side, it was Madison leading the charge. I honor those men much for the Constitution, but their eager embrace of hyperpartisanship is hard to forgive.

    Adams and Jefferson, the putative figureheads of their respective parties, stayed above the fray, but I believe Adams did so more wholeheartedly.

    He certainly described the greatest danger to our republic.

    Representative democracy, in order to work well, requires honest debate and good-faith deliberation in concert with people with whom the representatives disagree — rather than this mockery in which there is no debate in terms of a give-and-take, only speeches to the choir, and the chief aim is not the good of the commonweal, but the destruction of the “other side.”

  3. `Kathryn Fenner

    I’m more fed up with the state legislature, whose latest ridiculousness is that there shall be a Clemson-Carolina game each year by law. Seriously, that’s the biggest issue facing us?

  4. martin

    I read the WaPo story and read the blurbs with the map. They seemed to range from real district services to the highly self serving, such as when a guy gets an earmark for an area outside of his district, but where he has a beach home. Overall, it didn’t look as bad as I was expecting.

    What you need to read, Brad, is the Dana Milbank coverage of Jack Abramhoff’s appearance at a Nader group where he details exactly how to “buy” a politician…since you don’t think all that money floating around corrupts our noble pols. Jack disagrees and he went to prison to prove it.

  5. bud

    Seriously, that’s the biggest issue facing us?

    Kathryn is obviously not a football fan. Of course it’s the bigget issue before us. Who cares about restructuring, the financial health of the retirement system or even world peace if the Carolina-Clemson game is lost. Sheesh, why is this so hard to understand?

  6. Brad

    Money corrupts. Sometimes. Power corrupts. Sometimes. Neither always does.

    The presence of money, or of power, does not equate to the presence of corruption. The belief that it does is a fallacy.

  7. Karen McLeod

    But the love of money is the root of all evil. BTW money=power.

    @Kathryn–And what year were they NOT going to hold a Carolina/Clemson game that creates a need to legislate it?

  8. Bart

    WOW! Corrupt politicians who take advantage of opportunities to do favors for friends, family, themselves, and to influence business associates, so on and so forth. Someone stop the presses, hold up the opening of the 6:00 news, call a presser so the world can be informed, “Crooked politicians exist and they live among us!”

    Renourishment is needed for the unfortunate residents on a certain stretch of the beach. Never mind that I may not live there but I do have a home there. Just move on, nothing to see here.

    Where are the investigative reporters when you need one? Wait, I know where they are, they are covering the hot button issued the state absolutely must address immediately or civilization as we know it will come to a screeching halt – passing a bill to make it illegal to not have an annual Clemson-Carolina game. Maybe while they are at it, they can pass a law requiring Furman and Wofford play an annual game while they are doing the important stuff legislators do.

  9. Brad

    Karen, I prefer to follow the wisdom of the Eastern sages on this. To quote from “Volunteers” (and you can watch the clip here):

    Chung Mee: Opium is my business. The bridge mean more traffic. More traffic mean more money. More money mean more power.
    Lawrence Bourne III: Yeah, well, before I commit any of that to memory, would there be anything in this for me?
    Chung Mee: Speed is important in business. Time is money.
    Lawrence Bourne III: You said opium was money.
    Chung Mee: Money is Money.
    Lawrence Bourne III: Well then, what is time again?

  10. Silence

    @ Kathryn & Karen – I agree about the ridiculousness of the USC/CLEM legislation! I guess they have already:
    1) Reformed the state tax system
    2) Balanced the budget
    3) Overhauled the pension system
    4) Given state employees cost of living increases
    5) Overhauled SCDOT and found funding to repair existing infrastructure
    6) Made cockfighting a felony
    7) Solved every other problem in the state.

    PS. If this MUST be a state law, let’s include that the game must be played on Big Thursday at the State Fairgrounds each year.

  11. Juan Caruso

    Forty-six (46) members of congress were identified in the post article.

    During my research, I found that by the standards of Illinois, Alvin Greene could probably be successful in a future U.S. House race. One Bobby L. Rush (D-ILL) makes Alvin look educated and law-abiding. Although Rush went AWOL while in the Army, he also managed to leave with an honorable discharge (ring a bell?).

    House earmark culprits were split almost evenly along party lines. Of the six (6) Senators identified in the WAPO article, five (6) hold law degrees.

    There is no doubt that U.S. Senators with the luxury of 6-year terms are role models for the Congressional ethics. Those who also wield their law degrees (here, 83%) reduce ethics to whatever is legal.

    In the absence of generally accepted standards for ethical behavior, the natural default must be appearances.

    Due to case law since the 1980s, however, appearances for professional conduct have matter less and less. Recall Arthur Andersen & Co’s staff lawyer who instructed Enron’s external auditors to shred key workpapers, for example.

    When CPAs no longer concern themselves with appearances of independence (i.e. A. Andersen & Co performed both Enron’s internal and external audit functions) no one will.

  12. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ Karen– According to The State, and since I wasted a few minutes actually reading the article, since the schools are in different conferences, and the conferences they are in are expanding, it is possible that the inter-conference game could be squeezed out.

    As if….

  13. bud

    I don’t usually cotton to silly legislative initiatives like seleting a state insect or naming a road for some crony politician. But this is an issue that could affect many thousands of football fans. It would be a terrible shame if this treasure of football were to be lost because of foolish expansion of the conferences. And while I find it a bit offputting that the General Assembly wastes it’s time on issues that are really none of it’s business, in this case I’ll stick up for the General Assembly to a degree. Now if they waste many days on this then I’ll side with Kathryn. But a day or so for something that does, actually have an impact is not completely unreasonable.


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